Friday, November 19, 2010

The Insulation and Homogenization of American Culture

In my music collection I have collections of the top 100 songs from the Billboard charts for almost every year between 1970 and 1990.  This past week at work I've been listening to some of the material from the early eighties and I've noticed that as the decade progressed there was a homogenization of sorts of the music being played on the radio.  In the early eighties radio stations played much more eclectic mixes of material the same station that would play material by AC/DC and Billy Squier would also play material by Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbit, & Juice Newton.  As the decade progressed the variety of material regressed. 

When I was young the TV offerings were substantially more limited.  There were the 3 major US networks, 2 stations out of Manhattan 300 miles to the south (WPIX and WWOR), and 3 Canadian stations due to our proximity to the Canadian border (CBC, CTV, & CJOH).  Oh, and if you had a special box, there was HBO on channel 6. 

Because of limited options on television and the variety of radio we were tied together considerably more by a certain commonality of experience.  We may have had political differences but our neighbor down the street couldn't have been too bad a fellow because he caught last night's episode of M*A*S*H* and enjoyed it as well.  That's something we could talk about-- a shared experience of enjoyment.  Nevermind what his political beliefs were because the subject of politics rarely came up. 

It's a lot harder to demonize those with which you disagree politically if you share some similarities and some life experiences, watch some of the same TV shows, listen to some of the same music. 

Fast forward to the present.  We have hundreds of cable channels, radio stations are heavily programmed to play only certain "genres" of music, advertising is growing more specifically targeted to certain demographic groups rather than the population as a whole.  As a culture this is causing the trend of getting us as individuals to focus more on our differences than our similarities and in so doing is causing increasing divisiveness.

Our similiarities with one another are blurring and our differences are coming into sharp focus.  The art of compromise is being forgotten as we see increasingly less in common with one another due to our decreasing level of shared common experiences. 

When you add to that the increased reliance on technology; our cell phones, laptops, iPods, etc.; they insulate us from one another.  It's considerably easier to call someone names or insult that person when you think of that person as a name on a screen as opposed to a living breathing human being.  It's easier to cast insults at those you disagree with when you don't have to view the reprecussions of your actions.  When you don't see the effect your words have on the person your words are directed at.

Between the pigeonholing and insulation of our culture, we've stopped seeing one another as fellow people and started seeing one another more and more as allies and adversaries based respectively on our shared or conflicting viewpoints.  That has mushroomed into our increasingly more polarized and culturally divided nation.

I don't know the solution, I wish I did.  But I'd like to think having an awareness and understanding of what is happening and why is a good first step towards finding a solution and hopefully tearing down some of the walls we've started to build between us.


Jessica D'Amico (JeDa) said...

I respectfully agree to disagree about the section where you noted: "we see increasingly less in common with one another due to our decreasing level of shared common experiences."

As a person who's lived in 3 countries and being naturally quirky in strange ways, I oftentimes have very little in common with most of the people around me, no matter where I may be. And yet, because of the experience of being an "outsider" I always am understanding and receptive of others' points of view and oftentimes help bridge and explain subtleties and differences among those around me. I love seeing people's appreciation and better understanding light up their faces.

I think that blaming technology for insulating us is like blaming guns for deaths. You can start blaming phones/letters/telegrams for not letting us go visit family. Television for not making us go to the movie or play theater.

It's the decision of the person, and their level of emotional maturity, that spells out whether they seek out opportunities to be well-rounded, socially-engaged persons.

Then again, there's the pimply teenager Dungeons and Dragons player types who will never see daylight and will grow farms of mushrooms under their armpits.

Perplexio said...

I'm not blaming television, I'm blaming the overabundance of choices. With only 10 or 12 channels to watch there would/will be a larger portion of the population watching the same shows. 300 million people watching with some variance the same 10 or 12 channels vs. 300 million people with over 100 different channels to choose from. It dilutes the audience pool so to speak. But that overabundance of choices has spilled into other areas of our lives as well.

Technology isn't keeping us from going out and doing things but it is changing the way we interact (or don't) interact with people when we're out in the world doing those things. And I won't say this is always a bad thing. It's not. I view it more as an unanticipated negative consequence of certain technologies we have today that we didn't have before. There are also positive things about the new technologies.

I guess the idea behind my post, and I realize in re-reading it that it didn't come across this way, isn't anti-technology so much as awareness. We know and easily recognize the benefits of additional choices of programs to watch on TV, of the conveniences these new technologies bring to our lives... But we should also be aware of and recognize the unintended negative consequences of this flood of choices of things to watch on TV and the negative effects these new technologies bring to our lives.

The technologies and plethora of TV channels aren't going away... So just being self-aware that there is such a thing as "too much of a good thing" might be all some of us need to keep us from "over-indulging."

Jessica D'Amico (JeDa) said...

Well put. Too many options easily cause lapses in other priorities and analysis paralysis at the other extreme. Choice and consequences!

I think you've made a good case of showing that many people underestimate the importance of mitigating the negatives and the over-indulging.

Mark Juric said...

First, let me say that I think Jessica is right when she says "blaming technology for insulating us is like blaming guns for deaths." Very, very right. You can't blame guns for the 75,000 gun deaths per year in America, but you sure can blame them for making it way too easy. Technology makes it far too easy to insulate one's self and many people do it without realizing it. Listening to an MP3 player or talking on a cell phone is a very isolating act. Add a hat and sunglasses to the mix and you are advertising to the world that you aren't here for the audience participation part of the program.

But, you've said this isn't about technology, so let me give you the other side of your argument. Some of us – now, as it turns out – many of us weren't satisfied with the choices offered by the mainstream growing up. The radio station that you may have considered eclectic by playing “The Stroke” in the same playlist as “The Gambler” was not going to be playing Siouxie And The Banshees, GBH, or UK Subs. Mainstream music didn't speak to us. Ditto with movies and television. Like the GLBT community, like vegetarians, like Muslims and atheists, like anyone whose values fell outside that very narrow spectrum called the center, there was nothing for us.

Given the same set of facts, I would draw a completely different conclusion. I would argue that it's the tyranny of the center that has caused the isolation we see today. It's the refusal to look beyond that comfortable area in the middle that varies from light-gray to dark that's responsible for marginalization. These silos of interest you say are responsible for divisiveness have always been there. The people on the edges, the people that these fractional slices of media cater to, understand isolation. It's where they've been forced to live and in many cases, hide, most of their lives. They now have these touchstones that act like beacons to draw others like themselves together to let them know they are not alone. But more than that, by sitting on the fringes they understand the spectrum of humanity better than those who never venture out of the center.